The Rapidian

Government Shutdown: Q&A with Legal Aid's Karen Tjapkes

Tjapkes explains how the government shutdown is affecting people in Grand Rapids and where those in need can turn for help.
U.S. Capitol Building

U.S. Capitol Building /Architect of the Capitol

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Resources for Those Affected By Shutdown

2-1-1: Anyone affected by the shutdown can dial 2-1-1 or visit hwmuw.org/211 to speak with a specialist who can offer referrals to a variety of services in the community, including food, housing, transportation, and childcare.

National Housing Law Project:Tenants’ Rights During the Government Shutdown” is a one-page guide for tenants concerned about how the shutdown will affect their housing.

Home Repair Services: “Home Repair Services is a HUD-approved counseling agency that can assist area workers affected by the partial government shutdown to file paperwork for a forbearance plan with their mortgage servicing company. The cost for the service is free and it could result in a loan modification, repayment plan or some other solution to ease pressure on homeowners until the shutdown is over.” For more information, visit homerepairservices.org.

Michigan Department of Health and Human Services: For the latest updates on the status of various federally funded programs in our state, visit michigan.gov/mdhhs.

Karen Tjapkes, attorney and director of strategic litigation with Legal Aid of Western Michigan

Karen Tjapkes, attorney and director of strategic litigation with Legal Aid of Western Michigan /Legal Aid of Western Michigan

With the partial government shutdown now in its second month, more and more people are feeling the strain.

The impact goes beyond the 800,000 federal workers, including those at Gerald R. Ford International Airport, who missed their second paycheck today. It’s also causing concern among those who receive food or housing assistance from the federal government.

We spoke with Karen Tjapkes, director of strategic litigation for Legal Aid of Western Michigan, about how the effects of the shutdown are being felt here in Kent County.

Q: Has Legal Aid seen an increase in calls and other contacts as a result of the shutdown?

A: We haven't yet – but I think that is because we are still a few weeks away from the shutdown really affecting most of the benefits we work with, such as Section 8 subsidies and food assistance payments. We have had a handful of phone calls where benefits are being terminated for other reasons and the individuals are confused about whether the termination is due to the shutdown – very unlikely – or some other reason.

Q: What are the main concerns Legal Aid is hearing related to the shutdown?

A: Our primary concern at this point is really the housing subsidies, such as the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher, and whether landlords are beginning to evict because of non-payment. While legally the tenant cannot be held responsible for the Section 8 portion of the rent, many landlords and courts are confused about that point and we are very worried that we are going to see an increase in homeless individuals and families if the shutdown continues into the spring and this becomes a real issue.

We are also concerned about the families that rely on food assistance payments. With the February payment coming so early, families are going to need to be really careful to budget that money to last through the end of February, and if the shutdown continues, there is no guarantee of March payments. That money is critical for many families, and I think we are going to see many families having to make difficult choices between food and heat and essential needs if the shutdown continues into the spring.

Q: The New York Times reported a couple instances of property management companies demanding subsidized tenants pay their full rent. Is it legal for landlords to do this?

A: Maybe but probably not in most circumstances. There are multiple types of housing subsidies, and different subsidies have different rules and different contracts. There are a few types of subsidies, but very small in number in this area, where it could be a problem for tenants. Most tenants with subsidies or vouchers have protections. In all cases, we would urge tenants to contact Legal Aid if their assistance is being terminated so we can assess the reason and whether that reason is legal.

Q: How has the shutdown affected local agencies who rely on funding from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development?

A: My understanding is that most of the agencies who administer subsidized housing, such as Section 8 vouchers, have the funds to make the February assistance payments. If the shutdown continues into March, then individual agencies will likely have to come up with different plans depending on the type of program, what cash reserves they can use, etc.

Q: What can people do if they’re worried that the shutdown will put them at risk of losing their home?

A: I would encourage people to reach out for help. There is a lot in the media that isn't wholly accurate or isn't accurate to all individuals. There are agencies that can help negotiate with mortgage companies, there are agencies to help with food pantries, there are agencies to help renters. While this is going to really strain our safety net if it continues, I hope that people won't just suffer in silence. I would also encourage those in our community who have the means to look at where they can contribute such as giving to the local food pantries, to help our neighbors during this time.

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